“Albert Nobbs” is centered on the sort of stunt that could come off as cheap, flashy or comedic, depending on the performance: In 19th-century Ireland, our hero Albert Nobbs works as a butler in a posh hotel. He’s calm, collected and endlessly reliable. What no one knows is that, under that short haircut and starched collar, he’s really a she.
Sounds like a cheap grab for Oscar glory, doesn’t it? In fact, Glenn Close, who plays Albert, did get an Oscar nomination for her work. But instead of playing Albert like a cliched guy, all masculine bluster and noise, Close tones things down — way, way down — so Albert comes off as a silent, virtually sexless person. He seems like someone who’s not just hiding a deep secret, but who’s hiding from the whole world.
Naturally, someone discovers Albert’s secret, and that’s where the movie gets interesting. One night, the hotel’s snooty owner (Pauline Collins) insists that Hubert Page, a painter, spend the night in Albert’s room, figuring it’s no big deal because, after all, they’re both, men, right? Well, she’s wrong on both counts, because it turns out Hubert has a big secret, too — and it’s the same one poor Albert’s been keeping all these years.
Hubert is portrayed by Janet McTeer, who also got an Oscar nod — and, if anything, she earned it more than Close. Unlike the repressed, terrified Albert, Hubert is enthusiastic and open, living with a woman she loves and not afraid to enjoy life, even if she’s not exactly living it on her own terms. Hubert does more than bring life to Albert Hobbs, the man — she brings life to “Albert Hobbs,” the movie. The scenes with Close and McTeer are by far the best in the movie, whether they’re discussing their odd little lives or briefly dressing as women after a tragedy strikes. (It says something about both performances that when the two actresses finally dress as women, something feels a little off.)
There’s much more in “Albert Nobbs,” including a subplot involving a young man, a young maid and the money Nobbs has been saving. But frankly, compared to the scenes with Albert and Hubert, it comes off as cheap melodrama. I wish the writers — including Glenn Close, who shares a screenwriting credit — had kept the focus on the actresses pretending to be women pretending to be men. Those are the moments that made the movie memorable.
Besides the movie, the Lionsgate DVD and Blu-ray of “Albert Nobbs” include some deleted scenes, a few trailers and an interesting commentary track featuring Close and director Rodrigo Garcia.
Contact Will Pfeifer at 815-961-5807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More women dressed as men
There are plenty of movies where guys dress up as women (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Birdcage,” several Bugs Bunny cartoons) but relatively few where the gender swap goes the other way. Here’s a partial list:
“Victor Victoria” (1982) Julia Andrews pretends to be a male female impersonator. Hilarity ensues.
“Yentl” (1983) To get religious training, Barbra Streisand disguises herself as a boy.
“Just One of the Guys” (1985) A goofy teen comedy where a female student pretends to be a guy for a newspaper article she’s writing.
“Mulan” (1998) Underrated Disney cartoon about a young Chinese woman who enlists in the army as a man to save her family’s honor.
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998) Gwyneth Paltrow does the cross dressing bit to audition for a Shakespeare play because, back in those days, only guys could be actors.
“Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) Hilary Swank won an Oscar for playing Brandon Teena, in this true story about a transgender teen who pretended to be a boy.
“She’s the Man” (2006) Amanda Bynes disguises herself as her twin brother to win a spot on a boys’ soccer team.
— Will Pfeifer